Doing the Math on Real College Costs

Oct 30, 2017

How do you pick a college? There are some standard questions.

“What do you want to be, and what are you really good at?” suggested Director of the Louisiana Office of Student Financial Aid, Sujuan Boutté. "Which of these institutions have what you want to major in, and they’re good at it? Where can you get in?”

But according to Boutté, Louisiana students have to do the math and consider the financial factor.

“Now let’s talk about where you can afford to go, and where can you attend with the greatest ratio of gift aid to the lowest ratio of loan debt,” she added.

Boutté startled a few members of the legislature’s TOPS Task Force when she did the math for them, giving them the bald facts on TOPS and other sources of student financial aid.

For example, she said, "Cost of attendance at LSU is $32,822 per year. LSU Baton Rouge’s TOPS award is $7,463."

Cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and personal items, while TOPS only covers tuition. Other sources of financial aid combined don't add up to enough to cover the bill.

Income-based federal Pell grants max out at $5,920 per year. The state's GO Grant program, also income based, has a maximum annual award of $3,000. Federal student loans are capped at $5,500 per year. Add it all up, and you’re still $10,939 short of affording one year at LSU.

On average, the cost gap for the University of Louisiana System is $5,000 per year; and $4,000 at Southern University. Only community colleges had no cost gap, but still required student loans.

Some members were curious about student athletes — how could they get TOPS awards in addition to so-called "full-ride" scholarships?

"Full ride does not include all cost of attendance," Boutté explained. "Full ride at LSU is $27,400."

At the end of the presentation, Taylor Foundation director James Caillier suggested lawmakers weren't attacking the problem properly.

"We're concentrating on the financial aid funding policy, but I think before we do that, we need a state funding policy," he said, adding that the current system makes it nearly impossible for parents and students to effectively plan for the real costs of college.

"No one in Louisiana can tell you what the cost will be to attend any of the institutions next year," he said. "We won't know until June whether TOPS is going to be funded, GO grants, or any of these programs. Beyond that, we don't know if the institutions will increase fees."